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La Viola
Minna KEAL (1909-1999)
Ballade in F minor (1929) [11:07]
Marcelle SOULAGE (1894-1970)
Sonata for Solo Viola Op.43 (1930) [22:04]
Fernande DECRUCK (1896-1954)
Viola Sonata (1943) [16:23]
Luise Adolpha LE BEAU (1850-1927)
Three Pieces for viola and piano Op.26 (1881) [10:53]
Pamela HARRISON (1915-1990)
Viola Sonata (1946) [22:57]
Lament for viola and piano (pub. 1963) [4:54]
Lillian FUCHS (1901-1995)
Sonata Pastorale for unaccompanied viola (1953) [11:25]
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
Viola Sonata (1919) [24:00]
Hillary Herndon (viola)
Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo (piano)
rec. November 2010, Krannert Center for Performing Arts, Urbana, Illinois: April 2011 and March 2012 at Sweet Briar College Chapel, Virginia
MSR CLASSICS MS1416 [60:29 + 63:17]

‘La Viola’ takes as its focus music for that instrument composed by seven women composers. Whether that is seen as a programming cul-de-sac, or not, is a question I’d best avoid, instead concentrating on the quality of the compositions themselves, which is high.
The most important piece here is Rebecca Clarke’s 1919 Viola Sonata, which has fortunately long entered the active repertory, as opposed to merely the recorded discography. She was a talented violist herself - indeed her sole recording as an instrumentalist has been transferred to CD from 78 - but this sonata was also performed by her slightly older British colleague, Lionel Tertis, though he negligently made no reference to her or the sonata in the first edition of his autobiography. American violist Hillary Herndon and pianist Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo approach it with due appreciation of its stature. Theirs is a fine performance, but in the final resort Herndon lacks Tabea Zimmermann’s tonal breadth [Myrios Classics MYR004] and something of Garfield Jackson’s folkloric nuance [ASV CD DCA932]. Also, Barbara Westphal and Jeffrey Swann [Bridge 9109] make the sonata’s first movement flow just that bit more convincingly - something that Philip Dukes sadly failed to do in his sub-par Naxos recording [8.557934].
Another British composer represented is Minna Keal, whose late rediscovery was so heartening. Her Ballade dates from 1929 and sits securely in an expressive late-romantic niche. Tertis apparently approved of it. Pamela Harrison studied under Arthur Benjamin and Gordon Jacob and later married the fine cellist Harvey Phillips. Her 1946 Sonata is something of a discovery: most fluently constructed with an attractive undertow of melancholy. Each of the four movements is strongly characterised, whether droll or lyrical. It’s no surprise that the early history of the sonata was bound up with two such fine players as Watson Forbes and Jean Stewart. Harrison’s Lament was published in 1963, and is quietly effective if not wholly distinctive.
Marcelle Soulage wrote her Sonata in 1930 and its teasingly improvisational quality is a animating feature of the first movement. Neo-classicism but also haunting songfulness haunts the remainder of the work. The Sonata by Fernande Decruck was composed in 1943 and dedicated to the famous saxophone player Marcel Mule - because the work was written ‘for alto saxophone (or viola)’. Brilliantly written, the most personal moments come in the third movement, a Fileuse whose Debussian lineage is clear. Yet there is a rather Ravelian Nocturne et Rondel with which to conclude and the bell peals with the work ends leave one with a degree of ambiguity: a hope for victory?
Of a much older vintage is Luise Adolpha La Beau’s Three Pieces of 1881. These are attractive character pieces and certainly don’t outstay their welcome in any way. I wish that greater tonal variance had been deployed in the Nachtstück, the first of the three. Lillian Fuchs was, like Rebecca Clarke, a first-class violist. Her unaccompanied Sonata Pastorale (1953) is structured in two movements and proves technically accomplished indeed, though somewhat less personalised than I was perhaps expecting.
This excellently chosen two CD selection will make an obvious appeal to the collector. As hinted, sometimes Herndon’s tone, at least as captured by this recording, can be a touch nasal and lack breadth and depth of tone. That doesn’t limit admiration for her, and Lo’s performances.
Jonathan Woolf